What do Democrats need to do to win in November? The New Republic took up that question this month in a series in which some of the brightest minds offered their best advice to President Biden and his party. But in an essay mapping out the challenges Democrats face, and how to surmount them, editor Michael Tomasky wrote something that has remained lodged in my mind: “It practically goes without saying that the Democrats will do none of the things I suggest.”
I’m pretty sure that Michael didn’t intend that one line to linger the longest. But it’s borne out so far. Here at the precipice of the general election, Biden has important accomplishments to trumpet and significant errors to overcome. But he’s being served poorly by his party, which seems adrift, complacent, and inert. Republicans, by contrast, have been sharper and more savage; at the moment, they are winning.
The recent fallout from the report by special counsel Robert Hur—the Trump-appointed U.S. attorney whom Attorney General Merrick Garland tapped to investigate Biden’s potential mishandling of classified documents—neatly illustrates the differences between the two parties. While absolving Biden of criminal wrongdoing, the report characterized the president at length as someone with worrisome memory lapses.
I don’t know if Hur went about his job with partisan ends in mind, but partisan ends were served nonetheless: The report surfaced derogatory information in a way guaranteed to make news. From there, an exceedingly well-oiled GOP communications machine swung into operation. Democrats have largely responded by complaining about how the media has framed the story. Their complaints may have merits, but what matters is they’re losing.
As The New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu noted, it was a “collision of Democratic pathologies” that put Hur “in the position to shiv Biden” in the first place: “Gerontocratic politics, a culture of hero-worship that gave Garland far more respect and stature than he was ever due, and the commitment to even-handedness” led Garland to believe that the fair thing to do was put a Trump-appointed attorney in charge of the investigation. But the biggest pathology on display here has to do with the way Democrats approach the media and their extreme disinterest in competing on the same playing field as the GOP.
There are always good reasons to complain about the political press—and Republicans do their own share of carping. But Democrats too often operate as if the media they’d prefer to have—temperate and fair, dedicated to substance and nuance, committed to preserving democracy—is the one that actually exists. Republicans don’t believe that the press is a noble institution and they don’t treat its members that way. Instead, they innately understand that the political press is just a ravenous, insensate maw looking for its next hot meal of crassness, chaos, conflict, and controversy—and Republicans always come with a heaping plate.
Once the Hur report became national news, GOP electeds acted quickly and decisively to keep this new shiny ball spinning. As Brian Beutler reported in a recent newsletter, the full-court press is on: “Hur is now negotiating with his fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill over what he can testify to and when he can appear at a hearing. Those same Republicans have insisted that the Justice Department release a transcript of Biden’s interview with Hur, so they can clip and circulate any instance in which Biden’s memory failed him.” Once the GOP gets a scent of some derogatory information, they are prepared to act on it.
The Democrats compare unfavorably to their opponents’ fervent determination and preparedness. In a previous edition of this newsletter, I noted that Representative Jamie Raskin had surfaced evidence that Trump had “pocketed at least $7.8 million in payments from foreign governments during his presidency,” but that the investigation hit an impasse when the GOP took over the House. Democratic senators have a committee where they can pursue open-ended investigations, but they have no interest in advancing Raskin’s case.
And the Hur report, while mainly damaging to Biden, also happens to cast Trump in an unfavorable light regarding his own handling of classified materials. Democrats don’t seem interested in using their own investigatory powers to raise further questions or make a big stink about the matter. Beutler ruefully noted that the media didn’t “swarm to the unflattering contrast between Trump and Biden” because Democrats largely ignored it.
This is malpractice, especially when you consider how swiftly and purposefully the GOP acts on similar shreds of information. But Democrats’ aversion to playing the game in the most effective manner is bone deep. They’re ignoring a myriad of other areas where further unflattering facts can be found. What might be behind Trump’s plan to abandon NATO? What shady arrangement may lurk at the heart of the favorable treatment he’s receiving from his pet judge Aileen Cannon? Democrats don’t seem to want to fill the newshole with these discussions.
Nor do they seem to want to make daily hay of Trump’s many legal woes. They aren’t pouncing on the fact that he recently confused Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi. The former president has vowed to repeal and replace Obamacare. Why aren’t Democrats beating him up over that? Republicans’ similar plans to end protections for patients with preexisting conditions were a potent campaign issue for Democrats in 2018. Have they forgotten?
What do the Democrats stand for? Who are their enemies? What fights do they want to pick? Can they even answer these questions? Because while they dither, the public is forming some wild opinions about what should go in the spaces they’re leaving blank. Recent polls indicate that half of Americans think that Biden got favorable treatment from Hur in the document probe. Another recent poll indicates the public blames Biden for killing the border deal, despite the fact that Trump publicly browbeat GOP electeds into nuking it. After the expiration of the expanded child tax credit, voters who had received those benefits swung their support to the GOP, despite the fact that they were the most prominent opponents of the expansion. And majorities of voters still don’t hold Trump responsible for the repeal of Roe’s abortion protections.
Perhaps the press should be doing a better job conveying this information. I certainly harbor little affection for mainstream political reporting; there are definitely patterns of behavior among the elite media that rebound to the detriment of Democrats alone. But at a certain point Democrats simply need to shoulder the responsibility themselves instead of waiting for the media to cure itself of habits that have been entrenched for decades.
Instead, they are getting in their own way, mired in weird pathologies and maladroit tendencies, timidly waiting for nonexistent referees to come and level the playing field on their behalf. There’s no getting around the fact that Joe Biden is old and steadily getting older. It’s up to other Democrats to lend his campaign youth and vigor; instead they are supine and moribund. Watching this party execute its campaign plan—if you can call it that—you’d never suspect that it feels any urgency. But there is much at stake, and Democrats are absolutely blowing it.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.